"So lovely to see you, Diogenes," Cornelia Pendergast said, as always resplendent in her old-fashioned black dress and restraints. "Dear brother Ambergris isn't with you?"
Aloysius Pendergast shook his head. "He couldn't get away, I'm afraid. He sends his regards, and compliments of the season."
"Yes, do send him mine. I should make him some of my special elderberry wine," Cornelia said, as if truly relishing the prospect.
"Not oleander tea?"
"Oh, you wicked thing you," Cornelia said, something almost disturbingly coquettish in her manner. "You always were so much more fun than your brother. Do you see much of him these days?"
"Not recently, no."
She sighed as if vexed. "He comes here, you know, pestering me about when did this happen, did I remember that." She shook her head. "Curiosity'll kill him sure as the cat one day."
Watching her face, Pendergast found himself wondering once more how much was madness and how much deliberate deception; he doubted even Dr. Ostrom could tell, or Cornelia herself, come to that. "Perhaps he only wants to reminiscence about the old days?"
Cornelia sighed again, lost in those memories. "Do you remember that Christmas when you gave him a coffin and headstone you'd made with your very own hands, for that little white rat he was so fond of?"
"Incitatus was a mouse," Pendergast said, the memory surprisingly vivid even after all these years.
Cornelia went on as though she hadn't heard him. "Well, he did dote on the funny little thing, but I never thought it was right your parents scolded you so for your present. You were just being thoughtful."
Whatever the scolding, Pendergast doubted it had made much of an impression on his brother. "I should probably be going," he said, aware of Dr. Ostrom's surreptitious signal the visit should wrap up.
"Oh, do stay," Cornelia said, glancing around. "I can't imagine what's taking those servants so long with the sherry. Damn Yankees can't do anything right."
"I'll have a word with them, if you like."
"Oh, would you, my dear? Thank you." She settled back a bit, the dreamy look back on her ancient face. "I've been thinking about his wife lately," she said, as if hovering in some far off place.
Pendergast, ignoring Dr. Ostrom's hurried gesture and the attendant's palpable tension, leaned closer to her, searching her mad eyes. "His wife?"
"Yes, Helen. Such a strange girl."
"How do you mean?" Pendergast asked, keeping his voice calm and even, betraying nothing of the sudden turbulence he was experiencing.
"That's right, you never knew her, did you? Well, you have that in common with your brother at least."
Puzzling through that, Pendergast said, "You mean Aloysius never knew her? They were married, Aunt Cornelia."
"And that makes one an open book?" Cornelia shook her head, as though pitying him for naiveté. "We all have our secrets to keep, dear."
"But why was she strange, Aunt Cornelia?"
"Oh, she'd get herself a little idée fixe every now and then, obsessive-compulsive or manic-depressive, I suppose they'd call it now. She called it her creative phase," Cornelia phrased that to convey a sense of affected pretention. "Out in her studio, painting and painting, and I never did see that girl produce one picture I'd ever hang on my wall."
"Mr. Pendergast," Dr. Ostrom whispered, "I really must insist this visit come to an end."
"What's he whispering about? You know I don't like conspiracies."
"It's quite all right, Aunt Cornelia," Pendergast said, as soothingly as possible. "He was asking me to come inspect the amontillado."
"Oh, yes, do. I'm sure these Yankees wouldn't know a good bottle from swill," she said, fixing said Yankees with a venomous look. "You'll come again, my dear?"
"I will, of course. Take care now, Aunt Cornelia," Pendergast said, watching as she was wheeled out of the room. Turning to Dr. Ostrom, he asked, "Is there ever any change?"
"For the better?" Dr. Ostrom gave a curt shake of his head. "If her illness was a physical one, Mr. Pendergast, I am afraid the prognosis would be terminal, no hope of recovery."
"Does her condition worsen?"
"Difficult to say," Dr. Ostrom said as they walked along the corridor. "Her moments of lucidity do appear to be growing more sporadic."
"Appearance, perhaps, being the key word?"
Looking a bit ill at ease, Dr. Ostrom said, "Yes, it's possible. Some of these cases," he shook his head, "they're elusive at best."
Thoughtful, turning that over in his mind, Pendergast thanked Dr. Ostrom for his time and took his leave, glad to escape the hospital, even if it was only to step out into a frigidly cold, fog-shrouded world. As a rule, he was not given to claustrophobia, yet every visit to this institution churned up feelings that bordered on anxiety. He supposed Dr. Ostrom would make much of that.
Reaching the beaux arts mansion on Riverside Drive, Pendergast parked the Silver Wraith beside D'Agosta's car, frowning a bit as he took note of some pine needles scattered along the ground. The trail led straight to the front door, but ended at the threshold; evidence, he supposed, of Proctor's sweeping up.
"Vincent?" he called out, approaching the open doors of the library.
"We're in here!"
"Yes, so I see," Pendergast said, the warning of the pine needles still not quite preparing him for the sight of the tall Christmas tree that now occupied a corner of the room, near the fireplace. Even now, Proctor was engaged in adjusting a string of lights, while D'Agosta, up on a stepladder, was contemplating the best arrangement for a glittery silver star. "It looks…quite festive."
D'Agosta, in rolled up shirt sleeves, tie and collar undone, gave him a guarded look. "You don't like it?"
"I didn't say that. I…" He shook his head. "It was very thoughtful of you, Vincent. Thank you."
Looking more sure of himself, and satisfied with the tree topper's position, D'Agosta came down off the ladder. "Thought a little holiday cheer couldn't hurt."
"No, it's…quite pleasing. Thank you, Vincent. I didn't expect it, that's all."
A rather mysterious look passed between D'Agosta and Proctor, D'Agosta saying, "Yeah, well, your surprises aren't over yet."
"That sounds a bit ominous."
"Yeah," D'Agosta waved at the table, at a plain brown package resting there, "ominous is a good word for it. It was delivered by courier a couple hours ago."
"I obtained all the particulars I could, sir," Proctor said, consulting a notebook now. "The service, and individual seem to be legitimate. The delivery had been arranged for more than a year ago."
Frowning, looking from one to the other of them, Pendergast said, "That's taking extravagant precautions, isn't it?"
"Not when you see who it's from," D'Agosta said.
Something about how D'Agosta said it, combined with his conversation with Cornelia to send a frisson of alarm coursing along his spine. He approached the table, the box, with a heightened sense of trepidation, leaning just close enough to make out the return address:
New York Museum of Natural History
New York City, NY
"Yes, I see. Have either of you handled it?"
"With gloves on," D'Agosta said. "The courier probably thought we were nuts."
"I've tested it as best I can, sir," said Proctor. "I believe it's safe to open."
D'Agosta canted Proctor an interested look. "Yeah, but with or without hazmat suits?"
Weighing all the possibilities and arriving at his decision, Pendergast withdrew a pocketknife and flicked open the blade. "Whatever else might be said of my brother, he did not lack for finesse. If there is any threat, it will be more subtle than something that blows up in our faces when we open this." He looked at the two of them. "However, if you wish to withdraw…"
D'Agosta shook his head, arms folded over his chest. "I'm good."
Proctor nodded. "And I, sir."
Somewhat absurdly touched by their support, Pendergast cleared his throat, and couldn't entirely refrain from holding his breath as he slit the box open and folded back the flaps. Nothing exploded; no gaseous cloud of noxious substance was released into the air. Instead, what stood revealed as Pendergast cut the cardboard away - was another box, highly decorative and excessively enigmatic.
Precautions taken once more, everything examined to make certain neither wood or metal had been treated with any deadly chemicals. Satisfied that, whatever danger the box posed, it would only be revealed upon opening it, the box was delicately placed in the center of the table, and Pendergast circled it slowly, observing every detail.
About 4x6, it was made of Gaboon Ebony wood, polished to a satin finish, and fitted with gleaming brass hardware. The lid was inlaid with an intricate design of mother of pearl and semi-precious gems, recreating the pendant Count Fosco had taken from him - that D'Agosta had retrieved and returned to him: a lidless eye hovering over the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fire. Helen had designed it for him, given it to him on their first anniversary. When had Diogenes ever seen it?
Dismissing that for a moment, he concentrated on perhaps the most crucial detail: the key placed in the lock, waiting to be turned.
Could it possibly be worth it? he wondered, thinking of what Cornelia had said, about his curiosity being the death of him. Was it possible she had been warning him?
"What do you think?" D'Agosta asked, at his shoulder.
"I think," Pendergast released a deep, weary breath, "I think that I might have really liked to have been an orphan."
D'Agosta responded with a short laugh, reaching over to rub Pendergast's shoulder, the gentle touch comforting. "Figures he'd try to fuck with you from beyond the grave."
"Indeed." Stroking careful fingers along the lid, grazing the key, Pendergast drew his hand back, murmured, "He did have his reasons."
"You'll forgive me if I doubt that."
Pendergast looked at him, grateful to have his backing, even if he wasn't entirely certain it was deserved. "You don't know the whole story, Vincent."
"No, you're right. Now might be a good time to enlighten me."
Considering that, weighing it, Pendergast nodded after a moment. "Perhaps you're right." He'd spoken of it to no one beyond Eli Glinn, and knew Glinn's interest had been mostly clinical. He couldn't anticipate how D'Agosta would react, and yet - as he met D'Agosta's searching gaze, searching for a way to help him, Pendergast knew that wasn't entirely true. "It might be a long story."
"It's Christmas Eve and I'm off duty," D'Agosta said, going over to settle into a chair by the fire, legs stretched out toward it. "I've got time, Aloysius."
Hesitating a moment, sparing the box another troubled glance, Pendergast nodded to himself and went over to join him. "I had forgotten myself, repressed the memory, until Mr. Glinn brought it up again…"
"Why didn't your parents want you to see Diogenes afterward?"
It was later, and they were alone, sharing the sofa now, the only illumination coming from the lights of the tree and the flames dancing in the fireplace. The box was still a conspicuous, silent presence.
"I suppose they were concerned I would be too distressed by what had happened to him."
Skewed around to face him, D'Agosta asked, "What did they tell him? How did they explain your not coming to see him?"
"I…" Pendergast shook his head. "I don't know." He shook his head again, certain that was a minor detail. "It wouldn't have mattered. He believed it was my pride that kept me away, my refusal to acknowledge a mistake, to apologize…" He trailed off, uncomfortably aware of D'Agosta's disbelieving stare. "What?"
"Is that your interpretation, or is that what Glinn concluded? Because if it's that, all I have to say is: bullshit."
"My dear Vincent--"
"Look, maybe the trauma pushed him over the edge, but from what your aunt Cornelia told me it was one Diogenes was already teetering on. Making it be your fault, though, wanting you to believe he worked himself into a snit the size of Mount Everest and went out to seek revenge on the world because you didn't say you were sorry for being a jerk? Yeah, I can believe Diogenes would love you thinking that, taking all the blame and absolving him." D'Agosta sat back, glaring, clearly aggravated with him. "I can't believe you'd fall for it, though."
Looking away, at the glow of the tree, Pendergast said, "He was only seven."
"And you were only nine. Only someone who was already damned twisted would torment you the way he did over an accident." Softer, quieter, D'Agosta said, "Cornelia told me about the mouse."
Sighing, Pendergast turned back to him. "He was an excellent mouse."
"Yeah." D'Agosta sighed, reached over to touch his arm. "Diogenes wasn't your fault. He wasn't anyone's fault but his own. You know that."
Pendergast nodded. "Ultimately, yes. It's just…" He shook his head again, at a loss for how to frame it in words.
"He was your little brother."
"Yes." He could remember his father lifting him to peek into the crib, telling him this was Diogenes and they were going to be the best of friends; it would be Aloysius' job to look after him, teach him and help him, and always keep him safe. "I did fail him."
"Yeah," D'Agosta nodded, "and maybe he owed you a sock on the jaw. Not anything else, Aloysius."
Letting go a deep breath, feeling like thirty years of conflict and self-doubt were released with it, Pendergast smiled slightly, reaching for D'Agosta's hand. "Thank you, Vincent. You are an excellent and insightful listener."
D'Agosta squeezed his hand, expression a bit wry as he said, "Glad I'm good for something."
Carefully examining his face, Pendergast said, "You're joking, I hope?"
"Pretty much, yeah." D'Agosta gave their twined fingers another squeeze, looking over at the box. "So what are you going to do with it? It doesn't have to be the box of doom, you know; it might contain something completely harmless."
Pendergast quirked an eyebrow at him.
Sighing, D'Agosta shrugged. "Yeah, I got nothing."
Looking at it, Pendergast considered the many possibilities. "It could be something utterly innocuous, or…" He shrugged. "Your imagination matches mine, I'm sure."
"A cache of stolen jewels?"
"Or journals containing explicit confessions to all his crimes."
"Old family photos?"
"Or some exotic, venomous creature whose bite is instantly lethal, and for which there is no known antidote."
"No," D'Agosta said, "your imagination's better." He sighed. "What do you really think?"
"I think…" Pendergast considered the box, considered his brother. "I think it's one last mind game, and…"
D'Agosta looked at him. "Yeah?"
"I'll let him win this final round," Pendergast said, and called for Proctor.
"Dispose of that, please," Pendergast said, indicating the box.
"You're certain, sir?"
Pendergast looked at D'Agosta, read encouragement and support in his face. "Quite certain. Thank you."
"Very good, sir, Lieutenant."
"It's going to drive you nuts," D'Agosta said, "never knowing."
"Perhaps, but I shall endeavor to live with it."
They sat there, quiet, enjoying the glow of the lights, each other's company.
"Merry Christmas, Aloysius."
"Merry Christmas, Vincent."
"I bet he doesn't open it," Cornelia said to the orderly tidying her room.
"More fool him, then," said the orderly, coming over to her, withdrawing a chased silver flask from a pocket, unscrewing the top and handing it to her.
Cornelia took a dainty sip, savoring the amontillado. "Well I told him clear as I could, but that doctor interrupted us too soon," she said, face creasing with displeasure.
"Dr. Ostrom? Yes, I have my eye on him."
Cornelia giggled tipsily. "Which one, dear?"
The orderly carefully retrieved the flask, put it back in his pocket. "Tell me again," he said, "about this idée fixe you say she had, about Audubon…"